In our highly media-aware and postmodern society, the general population has become very aware of the different marketing techniques used on them at every opportunity. Online banners, television commercials, print ads, etc; some savvy people are certain that they are able to tune them out. However, there are other, more subtle ‘messages’ that people may not even be aware that they are taking in. Sonic branding, for instance, is the use of short sounds to represent certain brands, much like a visual logo. ‘The Germans call these things ohrwurms or earworms – little bits of melody, little bits of sound that can worm their way into your ears and lodge themselves in your brain,’ describes Daniel Jackson, managing director of Cutting Edge Commercial. ‘We all do sonically brand ourselves, for example, through our mobile telephones – so most of us will select a ringtone, and like it or not, that ringtone will in some way reflect our personality.’

Sonic branding was preceded by the jingle, which has been with us since at least the late 19th Century. Others would argue that it was the composer Richard Wagner who first spawned the idea, by assigning certain musical themes (known as leitmotifs) to characters, themes and objects in his Ring Cycle. The idea of jingles and leitmotifs is for them to not only stick in people’s minds, but also to ‘trigger an emotional response.’ Bill Nygren, Managing Partner of Boom Sonic Branding (Boom), describes sonic brands as ‘the aural equivalent of a graphic logo … sonic brands are sound identities that penetrate the emotional and logical mind.’ But this idea is not only used for brands. Remember, for example, the famous leitmotif from Jaws, where the famous ‘dun dun’ theme has triggered strong enough emotions to keep people out of the water for years.

As people’s brains become more and more over-stimulated, attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Succinct, memorable audio bites can be a way to combat this trend. Statistics show that from 2001 to 2011, Western attention spans plunged from 12 to as little as 5 minutes. To keep up, many television theme tunes have been dropped in favour of short introductions, lasting less than a minute. For brands, combining logos with sound allows for marketing to penetrate on a deeper level. According to Lisa Lamb, Head of Sonic Branding for Interbrand, an advantage of sonic branding is that ‘one does not have to listen to hear, whereas one does need to be looking in order to see.’ Sound and memory are intrinsically linked; therefore, sonic branding can trigger specific memories to call to mind a certain facet of a brand. Sonic branding offers ‘a share of mind that visual branding alone cannot achieve,’ according to Boom.

In Switzerland, a common example of sonic branding would be the Swisscom jingle and ring tones. For a country where so many different languages are spoken, audio branding can be a way to transcend language barriers. These short audio motifs become familiar to Swisscom users and relay the brand essence every time they are heard. One of the most well-known examples of sonic branding is Intel’s 4-note trill, created in the 1990s.  According to Lamb, many people are unable to draw Intel’s logo, but still recognize the audio sound bite as belonging to the brand.

To effectively execute sonic branding, it is vital that the sound match the product. This marketing tool is meant to reinforce the brand image, not detract from it. For instance, returning to the Jaws theme music: the film would have been effective without the music, but the sound intensifies the experience. The sounds must be simple, memorable and must correspond perfectly to the image the brand wants to express. An organic jam, for example, would not blend well with a futuristic melody.  The sound must be harmonious with the brand identity and for this reason, Nygren stresses the importance of creating original sounds. In producing a new sound, the message conveyed is unique to the brand it is tied to. While coming up with original sounds that condense a brand into a few notes can take months, it can be worth the pay-off. According to Jackson, ‘All brands make a noise somewhere, whether it’s in a shop, on a TV commercial or through a telephone. Sonic branding is managing that sound, making sure that it’s positive.’  With sound able to mould a brand’s image on such a large scale, it’s all about striking the right chord with customers and making music to their ears.

by Dania Marti


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